Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

How to Respond to
a Depressed Person

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/depressed.htm

Updated  04-03-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response occurs when you get your primary needs met well enough, and both people feel respected enough.

      This article offers useful responses to the behavior of someone you experience as significantly depressed" It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it  

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • basic options for all responses

  • how to give effective feedback to someone

  • Is it depression, or unfinished grief?


       Depression affects millions of ordinary adults and kids. It ranges from mild ("a blue mood") to "clinical," and temporary to chronic. When it affects persons you care about or depend on, it can be hard to know how to respond to them. Reflect for a moment - how do you usually react to someone who  seems unusually "down," discouraged, apathetic, and/or sad? If their mood makes you uncomfortable, do you know why?

      A common reaction is to try to cheer the person up." ("Hey - look at the bright side!"). Another is to chide the person - "You know there are millions of people way worse off than you" (implication - so you shouldn't feel what you're feeling). Another reaction is - "If this keeps up, you ought to see a shrink" (and take feel-better medication).

      Over-busy or frustrated parents can sternly demand "You put on a happy face right now, young man / lady!" (implication - you're wrong or bad for feeling what you're feeling). Still others try to kid the depressed person - "Look, big chief Black Cloud has come to eat with us!" These responses are inherently disrespectful and unempathic, however well-meant.

      Recall the last time you felt significantly depressed. How did people react to you? How did you feel about that? What did you need from them? Did you get it? Did you feel there was "something wrong" with you that you had to "get over"? Our wounded, feel-good society and media urges us all to be happy and excited about life, and seek quick fixes for "feeling badly."

      After studying human behavior as a family-systems therapist for 36 years, I propose that...

  • much of what is diagnosed as "depression" is really healthy grief which needs empathic support to run its natural course; and...

  • true depression - specially chronic and "clinical" - is usually a sign of being ruled by a false self.

      If these premises are true, then "normal" responses like those above are inappropriate, disrespectful, and more about having the responder feel better. This brief video offers perspective. It mentions eight self-improovement loesso0ns in this Web site - I've reduced that to seven.

A Better Way

      A first step is to honestly assess how you feel around a "depressed person," and identify what you need. Do you feel "uncomfortable' and/or obligated to "fix" the other person (restore happiness)? If so, that's your need, not necessarily theirs. A better idea is to ask yourself what s/he needs from you without assuming.

Is "Depression" Really Grief?

Response Options:

  • Avoid feeling responsible for the person's feelings and making her / him "feel better." Try out the idea that all emotions and moods - including depression - are helpful pointers to current needs.

  • Learn the basics and symptoms of healthy grief in Lesson 3, and accept that some mourning symptoms (e.g. apathy, sadness, low appetite, isolating, and trouble sleeping) are similar to common signs of depression.

  • Respectfully affirm what the person seems to be feeling, and avoid assuming it's "depression." That can sound like:

"You seem pretty sad / down / blue / low / glum / unhappy." A neutral observation (statement) is better than a question here because it doesn't "lead" the other person.

Wait to see how s/he responds. Avoid the word "depressed," because it's suggestive and apt to program you both to make assumptions that hinder filling your respective needs.

  • Invite the person to say more about how s/he's feeling, to sense whether its the sadness phase of healthy grief. Be alert to any major recent changes (losses?) in the person's life. Option - ask about this.

  • Gauge whether the person needs to vent about something. If so, listening empathically without trying to "fix" problems is often a kind gift - specially with kids. Sometimes, silent companionship is enough.

  • Option - ask the person if s/he might be grieving. Be prepared for "I don't know" or "No." Stay aware that grief is widely misunderstood and discouraged in our country, which biases us against admitting we and others are mourning. If s/he seems interested, refer her or him to http://sfhelp.org/grief/basics.htm.

  • Avoid (a) talking about yourself, and (b) suggesting anti-depressant medication. It may reduce local symptoms, but doesn't touch the underlying primary needs causing them. Option - consider suggesting a local therapist who specializes in healthy grieving, to evaluate whether normal or incomplete mourning is causing or contributing to the symptoms.

  • Ask the person what s/he needs from you. Be prepared for "I don't know," "Nothing," or "Just some space." (to be alone). Stay aware of the comforting power of nonverbal affirmations - a caress, hug, and warm eye contact and nodding.

  • Read these options for supporting a griever, and apply them as appropriate.

Is "Depression" a Wound Symptom?

      These response-options assume you're familiar with personality subselves, and true Self and false self concepts. If you're skeptical about normal subselves, read this letter, and try this safe, interesting exercise after you finish here. Then read this overview of Grown Wounded Children.

      If you conclude that the "depressed" person is not grieving, then assess whether s/he is controlled locally or chronically by a false self - specially if the depression lasts long or recurs. Assess this with this and this. As you do, check to see if you may be wounded also! If so, make freeing your true Self a high personal priority.

      If you feel the person's "depression" may indicate psychological wounds, see this for response options.


      If you're still unsure about how to respond...

  • put your true Self in charge,

  • review your mutual rights,

  • use dig-down skill to learn what you need, and...

  • compassionately apply these wise guidelines. 


      This is one of a series of brief Lesson-2 articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common unpleasant social behaviors. This article offers three options to respond to a "significantly depressed" person. The options are based on the possibility that (a) the depression is really normal grief and/or (b) a symptom of psychological wounds. Each of these merits different responses to the person's behavior.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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